files to be kept secret
Major victory for Catholic Church as Oakland
judge reverses earlier ruling
An Oakland judge handed the Roman Catholic Church a significant
victory Wednesday, ruling that the public isn't entitled to
see personnel files of priests accused of sexual abuse.
The order by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw
gave the church most of the broad order it sought to maintain
confidentiality of records involved in about 160 cases of
alleged sexual misconduct by priests in Northern and Central
Eleven of the cases were filed against the Santa Rosa Diocese,
alleging that church officials failed to protect children
from offending priests.
The Santa Rosa lawsuits involve former priests Don Kimball,
Gary Timmons and Patrick Gleeson.
Sabraw's final order overturned a tentative ruling he issued
two weeks ago at the request of The Press Democrat and other
news organizations, which petitioned the court for access
to the personnel files.
"It's a major reversal," said Judy Alexander, an
attorney for The Press Democrat. "We lost a lot of ground."
The Press Democrat and San Francisco Chronicle argued in court
that public interest in the sex abuse scandal outweighed the
church's privacy interests.
In his tentative order, Sabraw said the personnel files would
no longer be designated as confidential. But in his final
order, which came two weeks after listening to arguments in
court, he said both victims and defendant priests "have
legitimate privacy interests in their employment, medical,
psychiatric, financial and similar records."
The personnel files were the key to unraveling the church's
failings, Alexander said. "That was how we were going
to tell what the church defendants knew and when they knew
it," she said.
The Santa Rosa Diocese, which covers 43 parishes from Petaluma
to the Oregon border, has acknowledged that 16 former priests
were accused of sexual misconduct with minors and that $8.6
million has been paid to victims.
But it never has named an accused priest. Seven of the priests
have been identified by victims or through civil or criminal
proceedings; nine have not been identified.
The judge also reversed himself in ruling that the names of
church officials who aren't defendants but are "implicitly
accused of neglect" are to remain confidential.
The only documents that are "presumptively public"
are church administrative records and procedures, he said.
Paul Gaspari, the lead lawyer for the church, couldn't be
reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Victims' lawyers had supported the newspapers' bid for access
to the church documents.
Rick Simons, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer, said the church's
legal position conflicts with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference
pledge of transparency in dealing with the sex abuse scandal.
"In fact, what they did in court is just the opposite,"
Simons said. "It's not a question of law. It's a question
of why they are retreating from their promises."
In his order, Sabraw said the public has been alerted to the
scandal, which erupted nationwide in 2002 but had been reported
in Santa Rosa since 1994.
"In addition, the public has been informed that employees
of religious entities can engage in childhood sexual abuse
and that the church defendants have allegedly failed to respond
promptly to notice of childhood sexual abuse," he said.
But whether a specific priest injured a specific defendant
"is a matter for individual claims," he said, "and
is not a matter of public health or safety."